I’ve never been Google’s biggest fan. Ask Mrs. Gremlin, and you’ll learn that my anti-Google tirades are frequent and annoying. I don’t use Google Maps, Gmail, or even Google Search when I can avoid it. Yet somehow, I’ve been using two thermostats by Nest (a Google/Alphabet subsidiary) for over five years. That’s how much I love this product.
What makes a thermostat smart?
Like most smart-home gadgets, perhaps the most frequently mentioned feature of Nest and its competitors is control; It’s the ability to adjust the temperature from anywhere: your couch, your office, or your wild Italian dream vacation.
(Irrelevant Photo Inserted: The Gremlin just misses Italy)
Indeed, after experiencing life with a Nest, manually adjusting your thermostat begins to feel like getting up to change TV channel: a cave-man activity.
But the true killer feature of smart thermostats is something much more tantalizing than convenience: savings.
Depending on the age of your abode, your thermostat probably looks like it was designed in the era of The Graduate (“PLASTICS!”) If you’re especially lucky, it may even BE from the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Thermostat technology has stagnated that badly. For most of their existence, a thermostat has simply been a thermometer linked to an on-off circuit. Even more “modern” designs are essentially a primitive digital timing circuit, allowing you to schedule your heating and cooling (if you’re willing to play Pac-Man with tiny rubber arrow keys and cryptically abbreviated displays).
A sad state of affairs
Ironically, the HVAC systems which thermostats control have improved significantly over the years, now using markedly less energy for the same performance.
What happens when you take a well designed semi-modern appliance and connect it to a brain using ancient technology? You waste energy. A lot of energy.
The real value of a smart thermostat lies here, in its ability to control your HVAC system more efficiently without compromising your comfort.
As the popularizer of the smart thermostat, Nest has spent 8 years thinking up every possible way to maximize your thermostats performance.
Traditional thermostats don’t know whether or not they’re placed in the sun. They don’t know how long it takes for the system they’re controlling to hit temperature. They lack options like the ability to “pre-heat” or “pre-cool” so that your home hits the target temperature at exactly the time you desire, rather than starting to heat/cool at the scheduled time. They shut off the HVAC system fan while the internal cooling block is still icy cold, wasting extra minutes of cold air circulation (this is a big one). They typically lack the ability to connect external sensors in distant rooms for a more useful temperature reading.
Nest has all of these features, and they work as advertised, saving you energy and putting you in better control of your home.
All that said, in the last couple of years, its competitors have gained ground in these areas.
Ecobee 4, a Nest competitor
What really sets Nest apart is ease of use. Its rotary design is simple and elegant to operate. It’s smart apps are functional and reliable. And its algorithms and sensors for detecting when you’re home are excellent.
This may sound like a small thing, but when it comes to thermostats, ease of use is what makes the difference between the system coming on exactly when it should, vs living with an inefficient schedule.
Nest has done quite a bit of research showing that even small changes in temperature (sometimes down to a single degree) can have a big impact on energy use over time. That’s tracked pretty well with our personal experience.
In our area, Nest also partners with our local energy provider for special programs that give us cash back for using a Nest thermostat. In exchange, the utility (with our consent) can shift the thermostat setting a few degrees during peak usage in order to keep the energy grid stable and save everyone some cash. Best of all, if on occasion we decide to manually change the temperature during these “Rush Hour Rewards,” we still get paid for participating!
At the end of the day, we saved roughly 15% on our energy bill in the year after switching to Nest. Our temperature can be adjusted on anything from a smartphone to a watch (or even my Logitech harmony universal remote). There really is no downside.
Can I use a Nest with my system?
HVAC systems come in many shapes and sizes. According to Nest, 90% of HVAC systems are Nest compatible. For convenience, the company has put together an excellent compatibility checker on their website. All you have to do is pull the face plate off your current thermostat, check to see which wire labels you have (or colors) and enter that info on their website. Nest will give you an easy yes or no.
Is it hard to install?
Installing a Nest was the first home improvement project I ever did, back in the Gremlin’s days of bachelorhood and renting. Nest provides pretty decent instructions for mounting, but here’s the basic steps:
1.Turn off your old HVAC system. Once it’s not running, flip the corresponding circuit breaker to cut all power to the system. It’s usually one of the larger “linked” breakers.
2.Remove your old thermostat, using Nest’s provided labels to mark each wire.
3.Usually you’ll have a large mark in the paint from your old, likely much bigger thermostat. You can either drywall patch/paint the area to clean it up, or use Nest’s included wall plate to hide the wall damage. In our house, I opted to do a drywall patch, and repaint, for a smaller footprint.
Our backplate with HVAC wires connected
4.Install the thermostat backplate on the wall. Insert the wires into the appropriate terminals, and tugging each one to ensure a secure connection.
5. Press the actual thermostat onto its base, then flip the breaker back on to restore power.
6. Follow the setup prompts on the thermostat itself, and use your computer to setup an account with Nest.
If you get lost, Nest support has some helpful info.
What’s the app like?
Nest’s iOS app is very solid. It provides access to all functions of the thermostat, with individual tabs for editing your schedule (if you choose to overrride it’s learning capability), changing heating/cooling mode, adjusting the fan, eco settings or to view your energy history.
Which Nest to Buy?
Nest has kept the options pretty simple for buyers. There’s two of ’em. The traditional Nest in a variety of colors, and the budget oriented Nest “E.”
Nest’s original thermostat is what I’ve got two of in my house (albiet the first generation models).
The “E” purports to be compatible with 85% of systems vs 95% for its big brother. It also won’t light up at a distance to display the temperature. Beyond that, it’s a matter of feel and aesthetics. I’m personally not a big fan of the frosted display. In person, it looks a bit like someone’s scratched the hell out of an LCD leaving everything blurry. It also feels distincitly plasticy in use, as if Nest wanted to hammer home that it’s the cheap one. If you don’t mind the look though, it’s a solid option, especially since you probably won’t be using the physical thermostat all that often.
Two other purchasing considerations. If you live in a large house, or if your thermostat is tucked away in an area that tends to get hotter or colder than the rest of the home, Nest’s external temperature sensor is a good option. We’re still running the original Nest models in our house, so I haven’t been able to test these personally, but they’re well reviewed and useful for certain HVAC setups.
NOTE: If you’re planning on buying a Nest (or if you purchased one recently), don’t forget to check the websites for your local utilities. We were able to get several hundred dollars in cash back for purchasing an energy efficent thermostat. In some cases, you can save even more if you buy from a local store, so bear that in mind as well!
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